Bahl v. City of St. Paul, No. 11-2869 (8th Cir. Oct. 9, 2012)

By Paul Mollica

This government services case, brought under Title II of the ADA and Minnesota state law, demonstrates graphically – in a lesson important to ADA Title I employment cases – how the absence of American sign-language interpreters can impede understanding (and possibly result in legal liability). The panel holds that the city’s failure to provide signers for a police interrogation may violate the rights of the disabled accused.

Bahl v. City of St. Paul, No. 11-2869 (8th Cir. Oct. 9, 2012): The panel describes ASL as “a complete, complex language that employ signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and postures of the body. It is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and is one of several communication options used by people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.”

During a traffic stop, Bahl and a patrol officer – according to the opinion – engaged in a shoving match (after a misunderstanding about whether the officer was asking for Bahl to produce his drivers’ license), leading to Bahl being maced, restrained and transported to a hospital. Bahl was then informed – in writing only – that he was being charged with a misdemeanor (“Gross Misdemeanor Obstructing with Force”) and that a sign language interpreter would be provided if Bahl were interviewed by the police. But because ASL was Bahl’s primary language – his facility in written English was only fair – he did not entirely understand the charge and requested an interpreter. In the end, he was not interviewed and no interpreter was ever provided.

Bahl sued the city for violation of his rights under the ADA and Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). While the district court granted summary judgment on Bahl’s entire claim, the Eighth Circuit remands on the part of his case concerning the custodial period when he was not interviewed. (The arrest was justified, even without accommodation, because of the physical confrontation between Bahl and the office. Summary judgment was also affirmed at the stage where Bahl was informed of the charge in writing.)

Once at the hospital, the panel holds that there was no further exigency justifying Bahl’s not being allowed to have a police sign interpreter:

 “Although [Officer] Gaden testified he ‘had all the elements required to submit the case’ to the prosecuting attorney, and did not need to speak with Bahl any further, he also raised concern about the cost of providing an interpreter for Bahl. Gaden testified that after meeting with Bahl, he inquired about an interpreter but believed ‘it would have cost too much money.’ He did not remember the exact amount. If the City terminated the interview because it did not want to provide Bahl with an ASL interpreter, the City bears the burden of showing that providing an interpreter would have resulted in ‘undue financial and administrative burdens.’ 28 C.F.R. § 35.164.”

The panel, in three opinions (majority and two concurring), also holds that city might be liable for maintaining “no standards or directives it uses to guide police supervisors and staff about how to communicate with deaf persons.”